The coops building a fresh economy for black people
The Independent 1 Jun 2019 HAZEL SHEFFIELD
Kali Akuno is in Devon to talk about his coop in Mississippi (Hazel Sheffield)
Kali Akuno was in Soweto, South Africa, with Winnie Mandela the day the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Ms Mandela had recognised Akuno, the son of black activists in the US, and invited him to join her tour. When a security detail tried to drag him away to look at a television, Akuno first thought he was looking at the album cover for his friend’s band, The Coup, which showed the rappers stood in front of the exploding towers. “I thought, ‘My buddy is on CNN – he’s getting really famous!’” Akuno remembers. Then he realised what was truly happening. “Overnight, everything changed.”
Up to that point, Akuno, a former teacher, had dedicated some of his energy to getting reparations for black
people in recognition that the slave trade was a crime against humanity as part of a broader strategy for selfdetermination. “I knew all that work was gone, one,” Akuno says, “and two, I knew my families in prisons in the US were not getting out. We needed to come up with something different.”
Today, Akuno is a director at Cooperation Jackson, a growing community of cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi. Cooperation Jackson has more than 220 dues-paying members working towards the creation of a new economy, beyond capitalism. The Jackson-Kush Plan published by Akuno in 2012 uses as its starting point the solidarity economy that already exists among impoverished black residents helping one another and seeks to formalise it with fair exchange. Since 2014, the organisation has acquired 50 pieces of land, two communal buildings, four houses that are refurbished and occupied and another four that are squats.
There are not enough new economy projects that are thinking radically enough about the liberation of black people
“We are trying to create a set of interconnected entities with our own supply and value chains,” Akuno says one warm afternoon in Devon. He is in the UK after being invited by Stir to Action, a magazine about the new economy, to run a three-day residential with people interested in learning about Cooperation Jackson.
Among those listening are Eshe Kiama Zuri, the founder of Notts Activist Wellness, a community organisation focused on the wellbeing and survival of the diverse Nottingham community. The group is currently campaigning to save the Tennyson Street Play Centre from being sold for student accommodation and to return it back to community use. And Beki Melrose and Jo Bambrough from the Exchange Creative Community in Morecambe, a community interest company working with residents of Morecambe’s historically deprived West End. The Exchange is working to make sure existing residents benefit when the Eden Project, a multimillion-dollar biodiversity centre, comes to town, making property in the area more desirable.
Guppi Bola, who worked with Stir to Action to bring Akuno to the UK, says their efforts were driven by the desire to talk about how the new economy movement in the UK, which is seeking alternatives to capitalism in cooperatives and shared ownership models, can improve the lives of working class people of colour. “We wanted to give inspiration to people of colour in the UK to tell our own story about what an alternative to neoliberalism would offer,” she says. “So far, there aren’t enough new economy projects that are thinking radically enough about the liberation of black people.”
Akuno’s own plan for an alternative to capitalism came together in the months after 11 September. He was living with his family in Oakland, California, and working as the founding director of a small, new school primarily for black and Latino students. One night, before the school opened, he woke up in a cold sweat. He knew he had put together a team to get these kids to college. But what really scared him was what came afterwards. Even if they had a college degree, what would they do with it?
Akuno had grown up at the tail end of the civil rights movement and worked to “bring forth the lessons” from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the New Afrikan People’s Organization. Yet everywhere he saw that the position of black people was precarious. “We were imported to the country to do labour and now they no longer need us to do labour. How do we deal with black disposability?” he says. “Capitalism is not going to provide jobs. So we need to seize a sustainable future for ourselves.”
As well as a farm and a school, Cooperation Jackson owns 70 per cent of Ewing Street, in west Jackson, and has plans to turn the street into an eco-village. It also owns a plaza with a space for a grocery store of 60,000 sq ft, with plans to bring fresh produce to the area, which qualifies as a food desert. The organisation recently set up a Fab Lab with $300,000 (£240,000) of equipment to do digital fabrication. Eventually, he hopes the Fab Lab will help fabricate new housing.
“Our project is possible because of the population character of Jackson,” Akuno explains. In Jackson, 40 per cent of people rent homes owned by white absentee landlords, making them vulnerable to eviction if the area changes. “We need to own the buildings to make sure that these people can stay in their neighbourhoods.”
Akuno has reason to believe that the neighbourhood will change. In 2016, a Republican state legislator announced his intention to take over Jackson, either piece-by-piece or through an emergency bill. Akuno believes the plan is to decrease the black working-class population of the area so that those in power can control who is elected. Then there is the risk that Cooperation Jackson might make the neighbourhood more desirable, making it harder for residents to afford the land necessary for the vision.
Brian Morgan, co-founder of Jangling Space, a cooperative that uses art to tackle loneliness in Glasgow, raises a hand and asks if Cooperation Jackson has tried to become more visible in the city, to make its presence felt. He says Jangling Space established a storefront so passersby can see their presence in town.
Akuno says the buildings owned by Cooperation Jackson are not tucked away. Many have murals on them. But as news about Cooperation Jackson spreads, Akuno has started to fear gentrification. “One thing I have got concerned about is who our visibility is drawing in,” he says. “Because land is so cheap in our city, there has been a tonne of folks move down and start their own art studio. The value of the property is starting to go up.”
Akuno is now locked in a battle against time to establish Cooperation Jackson beyond the point where it can be cannibalised by capitalism. “For me, you can’t have a conversation about reparations without decolonising the land,” he says. “If the land shifts, the power shifts.”